• Jer 20:10-13
• Psa 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35
• Rom 5:12-15
• Matt 10:26-33
Recently, while watching a basketball game on television, I was horrified when a commercial came on that was completely inappropriate for my young children. Actually, I thought it was inappropriate for anyone. I say “horrified” because the commercial was for a horror movie, which appeared to be unrelentingly bloody and violent. I had to wonder, after hastily changing the channel: “Why are such movies so prevalent and popular?”
There are several possible answers to that question, but I think for some people viewing horror films is an act of defiance. What is being defied? Death. Isn’t it strange how we often go out of our way to avoid thinking or talking about death in a serious way? And isn’t it equally revealing that when death is “addressed,” it is often in the form of audacious, outlandish films and television shows? It reminds me of how arguments are often carried out: by creating an absurd caricature of the opponent’s position so that it can be easily addressed and dismissed.
Christians, of all people, should and must take death seriously. Death is, after all, a certain fact of life whose dark presence cannot be dealt with by relying on power, fame, or multiple lines of credit. And Christians should know that man is helpless in the face of sin and death unless freed by the power of God and the “gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ,” as St. Paul puts in today’s reading from his epistle to the Romans.
But there is another aspect for us to ponder: the actual promise of persecution and even death, a sober promise given by Jesus to his disciples on many occasions. Today’s Gospel reading comes in the middle of a chapter—Matthew 10—in which Jesus talked at length about persecution, martyrdom, the sword, and the Cross. He was preparing the disciples for the difficult days and years ahead, in which all but one of the Apostles would be martyred (Saint John died of old age), and many others would give up their lives for their Master.
Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his powerful book The Moment of Christian Witness (Ignatius Press, 1994), writes of Matthew 10: “The underlying idea of Christ’s speech is the Cross; it is both the point of departure for his argument and the goal toward which he expressly invites his followers to strive. … According to this speech made by Christ, persecution constitutes the normal condition of the Church in her relation to the world, and martyrdom is the normal condition of the professed Christian.”
Von Balthasar notes that many Christians, of course, won’t endure physical persecution or martyrdom. But the fact that such violence and bloodshed is taking place today—in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia—should not escape our attention. On the contrary, it should be something that we consider and pray about on a regular basis. As our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer and are, in some cases, put to death, we should pray they will be given the grace and fortitude they need. And we can ask ourselves: “Would I be able to do that? Would I acknowledge my heavenly Father in the face of death? Or would I deny Him?”
Such difficult questions shouldn’t make us fearful. They should put into perspective the purpose of our lives and the meaning of eternal life. This point was made by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical on hope. He noted that many people seem to reject faith in the afterlife simply because they want their present lives to go on forever. “But to live always,” he stated, “without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (par 10).
Put another way, life without God is the true horror movie. And pretending that death is a joke or a problem to be “solved” will only end badly. We must see death, but not fear it, knowing that death is inevitable, but damnation is not.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the June 22, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)